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George Westinghouse

railroad and electricity pioneer

George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse was born at Central Bridge, New York, on October 6, 1846. His father was a manufacturer of farm implements, so George became interested in machines at an early age. He served as a Private in the Cavalry for two years during the Civil War before being made Acting Third Assistant Engineer in the Navy in 1864. He attended college for only three months in 1865, dropping out soon after obtaining his first patent.

Westinghouse received his first patent on October 31, 1865, at the age of 19, for a rotary steam engine. That same year he invented a device for replacing derailed freight cars on their tracks and started a business to manufacture his invention.

The device which made Westinghouse famous was the railroad air brake, which he patented in 1869. This device enabled trains to be stopped with fail-safe accuracy by the locomotive engineer for the first time and was eventually adopted on the majority of the world's railroads. He organized the Westinghouse Air Brake Company that same year. In 1872, he invented the automatic air brake. His empire expanded as he opened companies in Europe and Canada. He expanded into the railroad signaling industry by organizing the Union Switch and Signal Company, which built and marketed devices based on his own inventions and the patents of others. He also developed an apparatus for the safe transmission of natural gas.

Hearing of Nikola Tesla's work with alternating current, Westinghouse founded the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886. Its mission was to commercialize alternating current as the standard for electrical transmission. Westinghouse purchased Tesla's AC motor and dynamo patents and hired him to improve and modify the dynamo for use in the power system. He also completely funded Tesla's research and offered him a generous royalty agreement on future profits.

Public acceptance of AC power came soon after Westinghouse dramatically proved its advantages at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago. He then won the contract to build three huge AC generators for harnessing the energy of Niagara Falls, bidding half of what Thomas Edison bid for a DC system. In 1895, the Niagara power system transmitted electricity to Buffalo, New York, over 20 miles away.

Over the next decade, Westinghouse aggressively developed technology for generating and transmitting electric power. He also applied it in a variety of industrial and consumer applications, including the streetcar and elevator. By 1904, Westinghouse controlled nine manufacturing companies in the United States, one in Canada, and five in Europe.

Westinghouse's good fortunes came to an end during the financial panic of 1907, when his company was caught in a takeover bid from financier J.P. Morgan. The fight left the company financially weakened, and Westinghouse had to rescind on the royalty contract he had signed with Tesla. Westinghouse's efforts to save his company failed, however, and he soon lost control of most of his empire.

The failure to save his company destroyed Westinghouse both mentally and physically. He died in New York City on March 12, 1914.

George Westinghouse held a total of 361 patents, the last of which was received in 1918, four years after his death.

After Westinghouse lost control of his company, the company continued without him to become an important world industrial entity. It went on to produce electric lights, refrigerators, washing machines, and other household electrical products. It also pioneered radio programming. At first its broadcast operations served mainly to promote sales of radios. Later, the company turned to ownership of radio and television stations. After purchasing CBS in 1995, the Westinghouse Company changed directions and the Westinghouse brand name and product lines were abandoned.

Railroad Air Brake
Nikola Tesla
Chicago World's Fair, 1893

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This page was last updated on 10/05/2017.